I’ve been going through a phase of reading crime novels. Like many phases that come and go, it’s one I inhabited many years ago when I was hooked on the novels of PD James and Robert Goddard’s thrillers, but in recent years I’ve mainly only read crime as part of my work as a freelance book editor, apart from a few of Donna Leon’s books, chosen primarily for the Venice setting. However, after reading Leon’s latest recently and the Tom Benjamin I reviewed here (click here), I pondered over Richard Osman’s offerings as I considered more crime reading. I wasn’t sure. A crime novel set in a retirement village in Kent didn’t hold quite the same attraction as those in Venice and Bologna. Even the cover speaks of something a little cosy, slightly old-fashioned and perhaps not quite my thing?
Still, I do like Richard Osman. Or at least I like him as much as we can like anyone we ‘know’ only via TV and the media. And he studied Politics & Sociology at Cambridge so he did seem like a celebrity who could probably write well without the need of a ghost-writer. I decided it would even be a good bit of research for my work; that I ought to know what Richard Osman’s books are like, given his name and his books’ success.
The Thursday Murder Club, published in 2020, is the first of three books in the series to date, so it seemed the best place to start.
The setting is the fairly exclusive retirement village of Coopers Chase in Kent and the Thursday Murder Club comprises a group of friends who meet every Thursday to investigate unsolved murders. The club was begun by Penny, a former policewoman who feels she missed out on the best action because she was a woman and that she wasn’t promoted to the level she deserved. Now was her chance to solve some difficult murders. By the time our story begins in the novel, however, Penny is lying in a vegetative state in the hospice part of the village. Nevertheless the club continues with the four remaining friends: the formidable Elizabeth, who is clearly in charge and we soon realise was once a spy; Joyce was a nurse, only able to live in the village because her lawyer daughter funds it; Ibrahim, is a retired psychiatrist; and Ron a bolshie former trade unionist who is pretty much channelling Arthur Scargill much of the time. They seem an unlikely bunch of friends – all in their 70s and 80s – but an interest in murder and a desire use their brains and keep sharp, lead to them forming a close bond.
The light, almost game-like nature of their Thursday investigations takes a dramatic turn when a real murder lands on their doorstep; or more literally at the gate of the village’s cemetery. A murder that took place during the day, with lots of people around, yet no obvious perpetrator. The victim is the unpleasant and greedy owner of Coopers Chase, Ian Ventham, who plans to bulldoze through the cemetery to build more homes. Many of the inhabitants of the village are angry and form a blockade so workmen can’t get in. But despite all the anger with and dislike of Ventham, who would go as far as to kill him and why? The method of killing is soon known: an injection during a brawl with a lethal poison. But one that would need someone with medical knowledge to inject in just the right place. So that narrows things down … but far from solves the mystery.
As the story develops, many more characters appear, each with their own stories, many with reasons to want Ventham dead and long ago crimes of murder and drugs are uncovered, not to mention love, revenge and gang warfare. But strangest of all, just before Ventham was murdered, a man working for him started digging up one of the graves and discovered a skeleton on top of the buried coffin … an extra and newer skeleton. Another murder?
The book has often been described as a ‘cosy crime novel’ and that seems a good description in many ways. Osman uses a nice conversational style and creates a cast of likeable, if occasionally mysterious, characters but, to be honest, despite the early murder it was all quite tame at the start. Was it going to be a disappointment. I felt the older people were presented in a rather clichéd way: uncertain of modern technology, struggling with texts, constantly drinking, even sherry; not altogether keeping up with the times. I’m not as old as the people in this book but old enough to get a bit prickly about how older people are presented.
I’m glad I kept going though (I do give up on disappointments sometimes). The storyline line gets more complex; the range of characters with such different backgrounds and stories is engaging; and the four main characters become rounder and more interesting as we get to know them more. Osman tells us of some of their and other characters’ tragedies with great sensitivity: Elizabeth’s coping with her much loved husband’s dementia; Joyce’s longing to win her daughter’s approval; and there’s a story of tragic young love and brutal gang relationships. There’s even a quick trip to Cyprus.
Many have described the book as ‘very’ funny; I’d say Osman displays a nice, gentle wit that is pleasingly amusing. I did feel as it went on with its many twists that some of them felt a little contrived; I might even say it all became a little too complex with seemingly endless revelations in the last sprint to the end. But more importantly, I became more and more attached to the story and characters; I became quite hooked, even, and was very glad I’d read it.
Osman has been quoted as saying he doesn’t like the ‘cosy’ description, but, sorry, Richard, I do feel that it’s fair. And really, you might say Miss Marple was ‘cosy’ too in her way. I think what’s meant is that it’s very British. It’s set in contemporary time but it could just as easily be a few decades ago – though I’m not sure when exclusive retirement villages arrived and of course there wouldn’t have been the mobile phones.
The book is being turned into a film, which I imagine is going to be very entertaining.